* Initial protests at U.S. consulate were minor
* U.S. looking at role of al Qaeda affiliate
* Republicans question Benghazi mission's security
By Tabassum Zakaria and Susan Cornwell
WASHINGTON, Sept 19 The U.S. Consulate in
Benghazi apparently was not troubled at first by a smattering of
protesters on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks last week,
but that changed abruptly at 9:35 p.m. when it sent a message
that the building was under heavy assault, U.S. government
New information emerging a week after attackers launched
rocket-propelled grenades and mortars and killed four Americans,
including U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens, suggests
that the protests at the outset were so small and unthreatening
as to attract little notice.
While many questions remain, the latest accounts differ from
the initial information provided by the Obama administration,
which had suggested that protests in front of the consulate over
an anti-Islamic film had played a major role in precipitating
the subsequent violent attack.
A senior U.S. counterterrorism official on Wednesday branded
the assault in which the four Americans died a "terrorist
And U.S. intelligence officials are said to be looking
closely at the potential role played by an al Qaeda affiliate in
North Africa known as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM.
In recent days, Obama administration officials have slightly
softened their claim that the attack was not preplanned, saying
that while there is no intelligence to suggest it was, not all
the facts are known.
Debate over whether militant groups preplanned the violent
assault and whether the consulate was adequately protected have
become election-season fodder, with Republican lawmakers
demanding answers and the Democratic administration seeking to
deflect criticism that it should have been better prepared.
Some new details have emerged this week on security
arrangements at the Benghazi consulate.
There were five civilian American security officers at the
consulate, congressional aides said on condition of anonymity.
The State Department said it had contracted with a private
security firm, U.K.-based Blue Mountain Group, to hire Libyan
nationals to carry out security measures at the Benghazi
consulate, such as operate metal detectors and sweep cars for
On Wednesday, Republican lawmakers pressed their questions
on U.S. security arrangements in a region where weapons,
including sophisticated arms looted from arsenals assembled by
the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, are widely available.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard McKeon said
he was "really concerned about the lack of support that the
ambassador had, the lack of protection."
"We had no military personnel there" in Benghazi, McKeon
said after a closed-door briefing from Pentagon officials. He
said this was "inconceivable" after an attack on the compound
earlier in the year.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton defended the security
arrangements earlier this week. "Let me assure you that our
security in Benghazi included a unit of host government security
forces, as well as a local guard force of the kind that we rely
on in many places around the world," she said on Tuesday.
PLANNED OR OPPORTUNISTIC?
Matthew Olsen, director of the National Counterterrorism
Center, branded the consulate assault a "terrorist attack" that
so far appeared to have been an "opportunistic" strike that
"began and evolved, and escalated over several hours."
At a Capitol Hill hearing, he sidestepped a question from
Senator Susan Collins about whether there were signs of
communication between extremist elements and the local consulate
guards. "I think that would be better addressed in the (closed,
classified) session that we're going to have tomorrow," he said.
U.S. officials said the possibility of such collusion is
part of their investigation.
Clinton, along with Director of National Intelligence James
Clapper, is to brief lawmakers behind closed doors on Thursday.
The arrival of FBI investigators in Libya was initially
delayed due to security concerns. But an investigation team has
now arrived in Tripoli and should reach Benghazi before the end
of the week, U.S. officials said. Their goal is to determine
what happened on the ground and who was responsible.
Republican lawmakers said they agreed with Libyan officials
who said the attack was preplanned.
"You don't bring rocket propelled grenades and heavy weapons
to spontaneous demonstrations," Senator John McCain said.
Olsen told lawmakers that it appeared that a "number of
different elements" were involved, including individuals
connected to militant groups.
"We are looking at indications that individuals involved in
the attack may have had connections to al Qaeda or al Qaeda's
affiliates; in particular, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb,"
Obama administration officials say U.S. intelligence
agencies had not seen any warnings to indicate the consulate was
going to be attacked.
Representative Mike Rogers, the House Intelligence Committee
chairman, told Reuters that CIA analysts were "only moderately
confident" that the attack was a spontaneous event.
"I think it was a preplanned event to have occurred probably
on 9/11. It seemed well-coordinated," Rogers, a Republican, said
and described it as an "al Qaeda-style attack."
He said there was command-and-control on the ground, with
initial reports showing clearly that the attackers were moving
toward specific targets on the compound.
"They had objectives, they had targets they were working
toward, they were using military style movements ... I just look
at that and think I don't know how you say that that wasn't a
pre-planned event when you have that kind of coordination,"
Representative C.A. "Dutch" Ruppersberger, the senior
Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said the Benghazi
protest was peaceful for about two hours and it was only after
the sun went down that the attackers showed up, suggesting that
it was an opportunistic assault rather than long-planned.
He said areas like Benghazi are similar to "the Wild West
years ago" where it is not unusual to see people driving around
"Something was planned, it's just when it was planned. Was
it days before, or was it as a result of the protest and an
extremist radical group like al Qaeda taking advantage of it?"
Ruppersberger said in an interview.
U.S. government sources said official message traffic showed
that the first communication about a full-scale assault on the
consulate was sent at 9:35 p.m. local time in Libya.
That led some officials who are looking into the incident to
conclude that any earlier protests at the consulate were
sufficiently minor that they weren't worth reporting.